Award-winning immunologist reveals how staring at candles for 10 minutes can reduce stress

Whether you’re taking the kids to after-school clubs, trying to become a partner at a major law firm, or both, it’s hard to find people who don’t consider themselves super busy.

Even retirees complain that they have too much to do. But the dark side of our increasingly hectic pace of life is the amount of stress we put on ourselves.

A work crisis hits, the WiFi goes out, the plane is delayed and we feel angry – producing more of the stress hormone cortisol than our bodies need.

To be healthy, you need to calm down.

Candle meditation is a great way for beginners to de-stress.  The more you practice it, the easier it gets

Candle meditation is a great way for beginners to de-stress. The more you practice it, the easier it gets

Today, in the second part of my series of tips on how to live longer and healthier, I’ll explain why stress is so bad for us.

You may have wondered why it is that when you finally take a break you catch a cold or flu? That’s because every stomach-churning, stressful moment we put ourselves through damages our defenses.

Our immune system is under constant attack and most of the time we stay healthy because the trillions of cells in the body are always at work to keep us safe.

But when our bodies encounter too many chemicals — and that includes the hormones released during periods of excessive stress — our immune system, which is quite strong, can falter if put under too much pressure, and this malfunction results in long-term inflammation. .

As I explained in yesterday’s Daily Mail, our tissues become “inflamed” when a threat – bacteria, toxins, trauma, even temperature extremes – damages our tissues as part of the immune response.

This is usually only temporary and the inflammation is crucial in kickstarting the process by which the body protects and heals itself.

But in some situations, the inflammation lasts too long and can result in DNA damage because too many immune cells (white blood cells) heed the body’s call and join the fight.

Sometimes these cells attack our own organs or otherwise healthy tissues and cells.

Those attacks age our tissues, affect our overall health, and in some cases can lead to autoimmune diseases such as celiac disease or multiple sclerosis. Researchers call this response “inflammaging” (inflammation plus aging).


In just 30 minutes, anxious thoughts can weaken your immune response

In just 30 minutes, anxious thoughts can weaken your immune response

When you are stressed, your body produces the stress hormone cortisol. In short spurts, cortisol limits inflammation. However, if you are constantly stressed and develop high levels of cortisol, your body adapts to the high level of this hormone and this eventually leads to an increase in inflammation – and therefore inflammation. This lowers your ability to fight infections.

In just 30 minutes, anxious thoughts can weaken your immune response.

The elevated cortisol involved in chronic stress also correlates with increased appetite and weight gain. It can lead to binges of unhealthy snacks or excessive alcohol consumption, both of which can cause nutritional deficiencies and a further weakened immune system. Therefore, maintaining cortisol balance is essential for health.

Cortisol is your body’s emergency department, there for temporary crises, but no substitute for good daily habits. Managing stress by reducing its triggers — toxic thoughts, places, people — can help unlock the secrets to better immune health and reduced inflammation.

Everyone experiences stress differently, so there are several ways you can reduce it, including breathing exercises and meditation.

Try these proven techniques to deal with it.



Called Simhasana in Sanskrit, the deep breathing technique Lion’s Breath can help relax your facial and jaw muscles, relieve stress and improve your cardiovascular function.

Sit, leaning slightly forward, with your hands on your knees or on the floor. Spread your fingers as wide as possible over your knees.

Breathe in through your nose. Open your mouth wide, stick out your tongue and point it down toward your chin.

Exhale forcefully and carry the breath over the root of your tongue. As you exhale, make a “ha” sound from deep within your belly.

Breathe normally for a few moments. Repeat up to seven times.

Meditation turns off what psychologists call the “monkey mind,” that constant loop of fear and worry that creates mental chaos. When you meditate, you sweep away that disorder. The goal is to become unseen, unreachable – if only for ten minutes a day.

Your body already has the tools to meditate and uses them. The reticular activating system (RAS) – a network of neurons in the brain – controls how you perceive and respond to the outside world. Broadly speaking, it monitors your consciousness and keeps track of all the data you gather through your senses.

For example, in a noisy restaurant, with a friend or partner, you can turn off all external noise to concentrate on your conversation. That’s your RAS in action. It allows your mind to work in the background, keeping your systems active without bombarding them with constant sensory input.

Your RAS creates an intentional filter for your preferred focus. It sorts the sensory input and displays only what is relevant. You can use the power of your RAS to focus on the moment.


Candle meditation is great for beginners. Light a candle and dim the lights so that the flame becomes the focal point of the room. Place the candle on a table at eye level and sit in front of it, two feet away. Keep your back straight to give your diaphragm full range of motion.

Set a timer for ten or fifteen minutes. Take a few deep, slow breaths. Relax and release all tension in your body.

Concentrate exclusively on the flame. Observe as it flickers, changes shape, emits a halo, and flashes a variety of colors. Don’t worry if your mind wanders. Just lead it back to the flame.

You may have to correct your mind several times. The more you practice it, the easier it gets.


When you inhale, blood cells receive oxygen and release carbon dioxide, the waste product you exhale

When you inhale, blood cells receive oxygen and release carbon dioxide, the waste product you exhale

When you inhale, blood cells receive oxygen and release carbon dioxide, the waste product you exhale. When you take a deep breath, the air fills your lungs and your abdomen rises. But many of us don’t breathe deeply enough and this limits the diaphragm’s range of motion, preventing the lower part of the lungs from receiving enough oxygenated air.

This may make you feel breathless or anxious. Respiratory problems can also cause fatigue, panic attacks, and other physical and emotional problems because they interfere with the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Deep breathing, on the other hand, can lower or stabilize your blood pressure while also slowing your heart rate. To do this, you need to breathe deeply and slowly.


This exercise naturally relaxes your nervous system. Do it sitting with a straight back until you get the hang of it. Then you can do it while lying in bed.

Place the tip of your tongue against the tissue ridge behind your top front teeth. Exhale completely through your mouth making a whoosh sound.

Close your mouth and inhale gently through your nose to a mental count of four.

Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale completely through your mouth and make a whoosh sound again, to a count of eight. Repeat three times.


Sleep may not feel like a priority at times, but a lot of critical activity takes place in your body while resting, including the production of molecules that fight infection. Sleep is just as important as food and water for the best physical and mental health.

Less than seven hours risks all the negative consequences you can imagine: while more than seven hours gives your body plenty of time to reset.

The tripling of sleep deprivation in recent decades has contributed to the obesity epidemic, due in part to the disruption of hormones — including those that control hunger — that occur when our sleep is interrupted.

Unfortunately, obesity impairs the immune system, which in turn opens the door to infections and disease.

A few nights of poor sleep won’t destroy your overall health, but a chronic pattern of poor sleep can lead to increased calorie intake, weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes and other problems.

Think of a road with ruts carved over the centuries by countless wheels. If a vehicle goes slightly east, it doesn’t change the tracks. As several thousand cars head east, they form a new rut that will take future motorists to a different destination.

When it’s time to sleep, your circadian clock kicks off the process.

At different points in your sleep-wake cycle, your brain also releases a variety of hormones, including epinephrine, cortisol, histamine, and norepinephrine, which counteract sleep to help you wake up, but when you’re under chronic stress, your body overproduces many of these hormones, especially cortisol.

Studies show that sleep deprivation impairs memory, motor skills and the brain. But you have the power to change all that.

The following daily habits will lead to a better night’s sleep:


Daylight has a strong influence on circadian rhythms. Daily exposure to sunlight helps synchronize your internal clock.


Exercise benefits cardiovascular health and sleep quality. You don’t have to be a triathlete to reap the benefits. Even a moderate walk can help and it’s also a great way to get some daylight exposure.


Turn off the TV an hour before you want to sleep. Dim the indoor lighting with a dimmer or use a low watt lamp.

If you spend too much time in front of a computer screen or smartphone, consider getting glasses that protect you from blue light, as it can cause retinal damage.


This includes caffeine, alcohol and a wide variety of drugs containing psychoactive substances. Talk to your doctor about any medications that may interfere with your rest.


It sounds simple, but in our go-go-go world, we often forget to relax. A warm bath or yoga can help you relax, as can meditation and deep breathing.

Avoid intensive reading material before going to bed. You want to unplug rather than activate your intellect.

© dr. Leo Nissola

  • Adapted by Libby Galvin from The Immunity Solution: Seven Weeks To Living Healthier And Longer by Dr. Leo Nissola, published by Countryman Press on February 10 for £23.99. To order a copy for £21.59 (offer valid until 12 February 2023; UK shipping free on orders over £20), visit or call 020 3176 2937.

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